Wildlife-rich grasslands are suffering a “catastrophic decline” and must be offered more statutory protection, conservationists warn.
The Yorkshire Dales contain about a sixth of the UK’s remaining upland hay meadows, but research gathered by the Wildlife Trusts finds that many such habitats are vanishing.
Ancient meadows and roadside verges support bees and other wildlife, and make soils secure, helping to store water and carbon.
Together, the UK’s 47 Wildlife Trusts are calling for greater protection of grasslands under existing rules, and for more species-rich sites to be subject to statutory protection. They want farmers to be better rewarded for managing important areas, and for stronger requirements to protect grasslands under the system for paying agricultural subsidies to farmers.
There also needs to be a national inventory of important grasslands, with monitoring of sites, and for more work to restore wildlife-rich grasslands.
Stephen Trotter, the Wildlife Trusts’ director for England, said: “We’re seeing an insidious yet catastrophic decline. The pressures are enormous: from development and changes in agricultural practices, to neglect. If we don’t act fast we’ll lose the natural heritage that has inspired writers and artists through generations - from Shakespeare to Hockney.”
The Trusts said information gathered from around the country showed many examples of grasslands being lost or no longer meeting the criteria for selection as Local Wildlife Sites because the habitats and species that made them special have vanished.
Among the 30-plus grassland restoration projects being carried out by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust is work to restore lowland meadow at Appleton Mill Farm near Appleton-le-Moor on the edge of the North York Moors. No official records document the meadow species that once existed there, but small pockets of grasslands in steep, hard-to-reach sections of the farm suggests that the habitat used to be more widespread.
The Trust says there is an estimated 850ha of unimproved neutral grassland in the North York Moors alone, and it is identified as the National Park’s most threatened habitat.
Hay meadows are being restored in the Dales by the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust.
Working with farmers, the charity has re-instated low intensity farming techniques and wildflower seed has been added to almost 400ha of degraded meadows.
Tanya St. Pierre, the charity’s Hay Time project officer, said: “Traditional wildflower hay meadows are under serious threat, and at risk of being lost forever if urgent action is not taken. The Dales is one of the few remaining strongholds, home to 16 per cent of all flower-rich upland hay meadows in the UK. We’re doing our best to protect and conserve these precious sites, as well as restoring areas of degraded meadow to gradually reintroduce species and expand these important grassland habitats.”
The charity’s Hay Time Appeal is intended to raise £150,000 to continue to fund its work. Meadow restorations planned for the summer include in Wensleydale, Wharfedale, Langstrothdale, Swaledale and Littondale.